For those of us who closely follow the meandering trails, detours, and full-stops of the vibrant wonder that is Chicago storefront theater, there was no production more highly-anticipated this season than Sideshow Theatre Company’s Heddatron, the Chicago premiere (part of Steppenwolf’s Garage Rep series) of Elizabeth Meriwether’s wacky, genius melding of Ibsen and robots that she wrote for the hot New York experimental theater company, Les Freres Corbusier in 2006. The plotline is a doozy (and generated gasps of wonder when I mentioned it on my Facebook status): a depressed Ypsilanti, Michigan housewife is kidnapped by a band of robots and taken to the Ecuadorian jungle where she is forced to perform with them in Hedda Gabler, while Henrik Ibsen skulks through the vines and interrupts the performance every chance he gets. Then scenes set in Ibsen’s fractious household, including an appearance by his rival August Strindberg, are intercut with the Michigan and Ecuadorian action. And last weekend, during the play’s rousing middle section, when Ibsen, the robots, Ibsen’s wife in lingerie, a mechanized TV set, and a guy in an ammo belt, among others, sang and danced to Bonnie Tyler’s 80s-signpost-now-karaoke-classic, “Total Eclipse of the Heart”, I sat gape-mouthed at the inventiveness and originality of it all. I liked a lot of Heddatron, and especially admire Sideshow’s success in producing on the Chicago storefront theater budget a technically impressive production that can rival the best of New York off-Broadway, but I wished there was a little more heart and emotion in Meriwether’s smart, whimsical script.
I must admit I tend to gravitate towards the artsy, the cutting (sometimes even bleeding)-edge, the shocking and aweing, the highly theatrical when it comes to plays that I like to see. For those of you who read this blog regularly, you know I’ve written about many of them too over the years. But ultimately theater for me is about great storytelling, and I’ve been surprised that two of the plays I’ve liked the most this winter theater season are about the extraordinarily fraught emotional bonds between ordinary families. Call me jaded, but every time I see the words “family drama” in the description of a play (and the play isn’t entitled August: Osage County), I scoff, roll my eyes, lower my bar, and expect something straight out of Lifetime TV. But Dan LeFranc’s The Big Meal, a world premiere production at the American Theatre Company about the lives and loves of three generations in a suburban family played out in the restaurant they frequent over the years, and Caitlin Montaye Parrish’s A Twist of Water, in another world premiere by Route 66 Theatre Company, about the fragile relationship between a gay dad and his adopted daughter after the death in the family, are intricate, emotionally resonant, flawlessly written chamber pieces, getting the massive audience attention (and in A Twist of Water’s case, including Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel’s) both richly deserve.